I know exactly when professional wrestling evolved into text for me. It was a late summer evening in the mid-nineties at a WWF house show in Indianapolis with one of my college professors, who was prepping a pop culture course called “Good and Evil in Professional Wrestling.” He saw wrestling for its literary goodness – a stadium spectacle rich in metaphor and conflict allegory, a coming together of archetypes rooted in the deeper traditions of melodrama, morality play, and carnival sideshow. I had always intuitively sensed all this smarty-pants stuff when I watched wrestling, but it was during a Mankind vs. the Undertaker match at a show in the presence of a post-structuralist that I suddenly understood how to articulate the concepts, to place them in their critical context.
(I hadn’t yet figured out to read Roland Barthes, didn’t until grad school. This was the mid-nineties, when the internet was in its infancy. There was no wiki. It was still hard to gather data, tap resources, and generally figure out what to read back then. Intellectual progress was still moving along like a tortoise on a mission – heading somewhere for sure, but on a slow, jerky trek across the desert, shuffling along all day on clubbed feet.)
Mankind versus the Undertaker hit me that night like a cartoon light bulb. I didn’t yet know anything about Mick Foley, Mankind’s “real person”, or Cactus Jack, Foley’s more legendary indy-circuit hardcore persona, and I had missed wrestling for a couple years so I hadn’t gotten to know The Undertaker as well as I eventually would. I lacked the nuances of the characters’ backstories, and this allowed me to fully appreciate the symbolism of their pairing. The seat rows at the now demolished Market Square Arena ascended sharply, if memory serves, giving every seat a clear vantage, but the higher up you sat, the more your view became wide-angled and bird’s eye. We were sitting pretty high up, so all I could really see was the broad-brush melodrama in the wrestlers’ flourishes, the flamboyant signs they added to their performance to enhance its subtextual meaning. Back then Mankind was a primordial looking piece of work – a hunched wild thing in ragged skins with the fearful scurry and savage awe of a schizophrenic caveman, and hair like a male Medusa. By contrast, The Undertaker strode to the ring in his floor length black coat and an ominous black cowboy hat, a costume suggesting both nightmarish funeral director and grim reaper. With slow, deliberate strides, he almost floated onto the scene, casting his icy stare at his opponent, who scurried away and cowered before being coaxed back to the ring by the ref. Mark Calaway, the man behind “The Undertaker” persona, has always been a masterful showman, a guy who knows how to work his aura and send shivers down your spine when all he’s doing is standing there, a still, towering 6’10 figure with stern yet calm eyes, and a hint of forgiveness in them, for we are all sad, scared creatures staring into the abyss when The Undertaker comes to call. As the entrance ritual came to a close (the announcer’s booming introductions, the wrestlers’ entrances, each with dramatic theme music, the ding-ding-ding of the ring bell) I realized for a moment the essence of a bygone era, the thrill attending a carnival side show or a gladiator match injects into a dull, labor-centered life, one unjaded by the oversaturation of cheap entertainment that has been society’s norm my entire life.
But the allegory didn’t stop with a straightforward Life v. Death duality, because Death was, despite all logic, the baby face, and he who clung to Life the much loathed heel. The crowd had ‘Taker’s back as they chanted “Rest In Peace! Rest In Peace!” – all of them rooting for The Undertaker to put Mankind in his literal coffin, eager for this invocation of a symbolic gesture that denotes inevitable doom for each and every one of us. They were energized as they chanted for their own finality, loving it! And indeed, the crowd got their wish: Death prevailed over Humanity as the Undertaker easily won the match. I will also never forget the junior high-aged kid sitting next to me who kept hollering through his hands in the shape of a megaphone: “Mankind’s a faggot!” Could this kid even hear the words coming out of his mouth? He was accusing the entire human race, himself included, of proclivities he apparently disapproved of. (At the very least he was calling humanity a bunch of douchebags, if he happened to be playing the edgy game where you strip a slur of its social implications and just use it as a rote insult, the way a very liberal-minded friend I used to have always called stupid things “retarded”.) The allegory of the match was not as simple as it looked, and in fact it managed to turn its own conflict metaphor on its head, in the kind of inversion that so often happens with the ever evolving memes, symbols and caricatures of professional wrestling.
The more technical aspects of the wrestling in that match didn’t stay with me. They often don’t. But I will never forget the Man vs. Death conflict narrative: it was an awakening, an invitation to read wrestling and read it deeply, with the same rigor I would otherwise read Mary Karr and Dostoyevsky that year. I would later read (in the more literal, written-word sense) Mick Foley’s manifesto Foley is Good, and the Real World is Faker Than Wrestling and find myself agreeing with his premise. Of course the matches are scripted and the outcomes predetermined, but the end product of professional wrestling – its brassy and boisterous metaphors – are most certainly as authentic as anything can be in this contrived, almost always phony-baloney epoch, which has been the dominant scene for pretty much my whole life.
UPDATE! More than a year after writing this post, I was digging through a box of old crap and came upon the ticket stub from that fateful night in Indianapolis. Check it out!
The funny part is “NO CAMCORDERS”. How times have changed.